Role and significance

There are two main approaches to considering characters in novels: examining their role and their significance:

  • their rolein the novel refers to the part they play in moving the plot forward
  • their significancerefers to the way in which they contribute to the novel's thematic content.

An example: Orlick

Orlick appears in the novel very infrequently, but he plays an important and sometimes unexpected role in the plot:

  • he appears early on as a worker in the forge, dissatisfied with his treatment and resentful of what he sees as Pip's more favoured treatment
  • he becomes a servant at Satis House but Pip gets him sacked
  • he displays an unwelcome sexual or romantic interest in Biddy
  • he attacks Mrs. Joe, thus removing her from the action
  • he later attacks Pip, intending to kill him.

Orlick's significance in the novel and his relationship to its thematic concerns is much more complex:

  • he can be seen as another version of Pip: another village boy, working at the forge, but without Pip's family relationship with Joe and thus less well treated
  • he resents Pip's acquisition of money and expectations and is without the beneficial effect of Joe as a stepfather
  • Mrs. Joe treats him harshly and he takes his revenge on her, and Pip's guilt when the attack takes place could be seen as suggesting that the attack is what Pip himself, at some deep level, would have liked to inflict on his sister
  • he lacks the guidance that Pip receives from Joe, and is perhaps a portrayal of what Pip might have been like without Joe
  • his anger and resentment towards Pip at the end of the novel is the most violent and outspoken expression of how far Pip has moved from his origins; this point is emphasized when Trabb's boy, one of Pip's tormentors for his new social pretensions, helps rescue him from Orlick.

An example: Mr. Jaggers

Mr. Jaggers' role is central to the plot:

  • it is he who brings Pip the news of his expectations and manages Pip's life
  • he is the only person who knows the true source of those expectations
  • he is the only person who knows Estella's true parentage
  • he proves to have been an agent in events years before the action of the novel begins and thus to have played a central part in creating the situation that gradually unfolds through the action of the novel.

His significance lies in his relationship to a number of themes:

  • he is a keeper of secrets and holds the key to most of the novel's mysteries
  • he enjoys the knowledge, power and control of others that his position brings him
  • he appears to be detached, harsh, cruel and even unfeeling, and embodies some of the novel's moral issues
  • he stands at an oblique angle to domestic life, as can be seen in the description of his own home
  • he has a more human side, suggested by his rescue of Estella and his defence of her mother
  • he is a skilful if unscrupulous lawyer, central to the novel's concern with the machinery of the law, crime and punishment.

Herbert, Estella and Wemmick

Most of the key characters have moral significance:

  • Herbert is charming, good-natured, weak and young – but also shows devotion and generosity to Pip, and later becomes a model citizen earning an honest living by hard work
  • Estella shows how upbringing can reduce a human being to despair; she marries Drummle because she can see no other way forward in her life and only learns her lesson when it is too late
  • Wemmick compromises with the system in order to earn his living, copying Jaggers in his apparent indifference to the awful fate of many of his clients, but builds a retreat in Walworth where his better nature can assert itself in the care of his father and the wooing of his wife.
  • Make a list of the main characters and trace their role in the plot and their significance in the story
    • Do the same with the minor characters..
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